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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 March 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Free-range Produce (Animal Welfare)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and to have the opportunity to discuss the issue of animal welfare, particularly in relation to poultry and the chicken industry.

I admit from the start that I have never shown a great interest in animal welfare in the 10 or 11 years that I have been doing this job; many of my constituents have raised the issue, but it is not something on which I have spoken in Parliament before. Bluntly, my motivation for doing so comes from lying in front of the television after eating far too much at Christmas and watching the celebrity chefs, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, on those excellent Channel 4 programmes that looked at animal welfare. My daughter Alice prodded me to watch the programmes. There is a generation of young children who take such issues to heart, but the programmes shown on the BBC and Channel 4 were excellent for broadening the matter out and for raising awareness among a much wider audience.

I should also praise the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has continually raised the matter. Many Members will have been subject to its lobby campaigns—the organisation is extremely smart at arranging for constituents to participate in postcard campaigns. Its persistence has done great service to animal welfare.

Such issues are not a flash in the pan—they have been around for some time—and I do not think that those concerning the chicken industry will go away. The television programmes to which I referred have started a process that I believe will continue. Both the BBC and Channel 4 plan to make follow-up programmes, and the celebrity chefs to whom I referred will be fairly persistent.

Although the focus of the debate is chickens, there are many other animal welfare issues, and I apologise for the fact that I shall not be able to touch on them in the time available. I shall say something about the pig industry because it is lobbying Parliament today, and it has some animal welfare issues.

The chicken campaign is not only to do with animal welfare, but our health. The programmes made a strong case for the importance of healthy eating and the way in which the food that we eat is bred. Obviously, the matter is significant for supermarkets and retailers; for consumers, because of the costs involved in raising standards; and for Parliament and politics. I apologise in advance to the Minister because I recognise that some of those matters are not in his portfolio, but I hope he will be helpful in perhaps undertaking some cross-party work on them.

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The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): I rise early to thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and to pass on apologies from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is at an important conference today. He has asked me to stand in for him, so I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Oaten: The other overriding comment that I wanted to make before getting into the detail is that I do not wish to attack farmers, supermarkets or any particular industry. If we are to make genuine progress, it is apparent that the various sectors need to work together, albeit that there are conflicting interests at times, and there is a fair amount of anger among farmers about how supermarkets operate. We need to recognise that both sides have difficulties.

I should establish some parameters in the language that I will use. There is a danger that the term “free-range”, which is in the title of the debate, is overused. There is a misunderstanding, which I certainly fell into, that animal welfare campaigners are asking for free-range produce. That is not the case: well managed, indoor-bred chickens that meet high welfare standards are perfectly acceptable. The phrases with which I am more comfortable are “freedom food” or “welfare standards”. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that we are always looking for free-range produce, because the alternatives can be just as acceptable for animal welfare.

I should give some of the background statistics. I was staggered when my researchers told me that 850 million meat chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK, which is an enormous amount of chicken consumption. Around 98 per cent. of those are broilers, which are intensively reared in large, closed buildings, in which the temperature, lighting, ventilation and nutrition are controlled to ensure the highest and quickest growth possible. The chickens are designed and bred to put on weight rapidly and many of them have severe health problems as a result of the way in which they are farmed. In some cases, they are crammed in; the lack of space can limit their ability to move around and increase prolonged contact with soiled litter, which gives rise to painful ammonia burns to their feet, legs and breasts. That was graphically illustrated in the television programmes, which showed how the animals were treated. The light is kept deliberately low to discourage activity, but it is kept on all the time to encourage the birds to increase their weight as quickly as possible. However, the chickens simply do not get adequate rest. Many of the birds are kept in barren sheds with no opportunity to express natural behaviour such as perching, ground pecking and foraging.

Research shows that the consequence is poor animal welfare. In 2000, the EU carried out a groundbreaking study that looked at the link between breeding practice and welfare. More recently, as a result of a study by Bristol university, which was sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we have more detailed information about the impact that production methods have on welfare. For those who were sceptical about the television programmes, that study, independently sponsored, sets out some alarming findings. For example, at a mean age of 40 days, more than 27 per cent. of birds showed poor locomotion, and 3 per cent. were almost unable to walk. The study’s conclusion said that

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is needed. Will the Minister say whether the Department has had a chance to look at the study, as I would hope, and what it plans to do next? Does the Minister feel that the Bristol study should result in any particular activities? Both anecdotal and detailed research by universities shows that we have a problem.

What about consumers? We know that they are looking for change because there was an enormous change in buying practice in the two or three weeks after Channel 4 broadcast its programmes. I talked to the managers of the various supermarkets in Winchester in my constituency and found that they quickly sold out of welfare birds. Sainsbury’s had to buy free-range chickens from France, so we are aware that consumers are prepared to change their habits.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is another loser in the pattern that he is describing? Will he ask the Government about the small caterer? They traditionally serve free range, but they find that because the supermarkets are buying up supplies, they cannot get a consistent supply, or that the price has soared. There is a premium of something like £7 for a free-range chicken or 10p for a free-range egg, which severely damages places such as the Wetland centre in my constituency.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the success story behind that changing pattern has a downside. There is a shortfall because of demand. As ever in such circumstances, the supermarkets—the big boys—can dominate and set the price. In the next six months or so, we could see an interesting fluctuation in prices as demand makes things difficult. There is enormous potential for British agriculture to meet the demand. If we get things right, I hope that we will see prices come down to a more acceptable level.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It is not a new issue; I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the policy some years ago, and the figures show that the scale of distress for chickens is still at a high level.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Winchester supermarkets. He might stand with a clipboard in the car park of any supermarket in the Winchester area asking people to sign a petition to improve the welfare of chickens, but although 80 per cent. of people are aware that chickens are kept in cruel conditions, because they have busy lives and their budgets are under pressure they may dip into the chiller cabinet and pick out a chicken from Brazil or Thailand, where welfare standards are even lower. There is a problem of public awareness, is there not?

Mr. Oaten: I suspect that if I stood in the car park with a petition, I would be thrown out; that is the usual practice, at least when trying to do anything political. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, one that it is backed by the RSPCA. It said that 90 per cent. of respondents to its survey would be prepared to buy a
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high-welfare-reared chicken. Interestingly, when asked how much extra people would spend only 27 per cent. of them said that they would spend £2 or more.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is backed by statistics. As ever in life, many of us talk a good talk, but putting it into practice is something different. Sometimes that is the result of laziness and lack of motivation. I recognise, as did the television programmes, that for some families a very real financial cost is involved. I tried to change my habits recently in terms of the purchase price. In some supermarkets, a chicken costing £14 or £15 is expensive compared with the £4 chicken that one could buy.

David Taylor: The RSPCA runs an admirable freedom food campaign. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that indoor-bred birds with a freedom food label cost about £1 more than the standard bird. That leap in price is not enormous.

Mr. Oaten: I agree. If one considers the way in which the various supermarkets choose to price their birds, one can see that some are at the high end. My slight suspicion is that they are using the current campaign to charge a little more for welfare birds. The hon. Member is right that the RSPCA’s work is practical. The RSPCA is also conscious of the costs involved, which is why many of the welfare tags that it attaches to birds and other animals come at a sensible price. None of this will work if we freeze out a large number of consumers.

I believe that there is an encouraging precedent. Similar arguments took place six or seven years ago on egg production, but practice has changed there. We have seen affordable welfare-raised eggs coming on to the market, and we have seen consumers changing their practice. We have seen the industry change before, and I am confident that we can get the prices right for poultry.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he saying that the supply of a particular product encourages the consumer, or that the consumer is driving the change in practice? I believe that the consumer is king, and that British agriculture will deliver whatever the consumer demands.

Mr. Oaten: That sounds rather like asking whether it is the chicken or the egg—or the egg and the chicken. I do not imply that my hon. Friend was trying to make that joke: self-evidently, both come together. The catalyst in this case is publicity; it has raised awareness and we have a really good opportunity on the back of the current media campaign to push forward and to get both sides to come together. However, as I said at the start, I do not say that one side is wrong and the other right. We must all work together.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman noticed a breach between chickens grown locally and those grown overseas, and whether there is an increasing gap between them?

Mr. Oaten: I am not aware of an issue in relation to cost—I have not been briefed on the matter—but I am aware, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware, of the real difference in the welfare standards of poultry reared in this country and abroad. I am confident, as
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ever, that British agriculture meets the highest possible standards of welfare. If there was one simple message to come from the campaign, it is that one way to be reassured that one is getting good welfare-raised poultry is to buy British whenever possible.

I turn to the role of the supermarkets. As I said in response to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the supermarkets’ response to the current debate is variable. The good and positive news is that companies such as Marks and Spencer and Waitrose do not stock standard chicken, and that Tesco and others are desperately moving towards that position. That has to be the biggest and most encouraging change that we have seen. Bluntly, if consumers cannot get hold of poorly reared chicken it will change attitudes.

Supermarkets need to undertake further work on labelling. As the consumer walks down the aisle and looks at the labels, it can be hard to tell quickly which chickens have been reared properly. Some poorly reared animals are packed cleverly with pictures of a farm, a barn and lots of green grass. We need to standardise labelling. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the subject. Much work has been done by the National Farmers Union and others with the red tractor campaign, but a little more needs to be done by the supermarkets, particularly if we are to have clarity about where chickens are sourced.

The supermarkets are helped by the work of the RSPCA and its freedom food campaign. The welfare standards developed by the RSPCA give me a great deal of assurance. When considering whether to issue a freedom food award, it takes account of animal welfare and advice from veterinary specialists. I believe that that provides a good model for change. The freedom food label is now used for eggs, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, beef, lamb, pork and dairy products. The good news is that in 2005, about 6.5 million chickens were reared to the RSPCA standard; by the end of 2006, that figure had increased to 20 million. The latest figures show a further increase to 40 million. That is an encouraging trend.

We, as parliamentarians, could put pressure on all supermarkets to make a firm commitment to move towards sourcing their products from a higher-welfare standard by a certain time. Sainsbury’s says that it will do so by 2010; we should look for more public statements to be made by supermarkets.

I am conscious of the time, Mr. Atkinson, but I want to speak about farmers before turning to legislation and other matters important to us as politicians. As we know, farmers are often highly criticised on the matter of animal welfare. Three relatives of mine are farmers, and they spend most of their time with me on Sundays roasting me on the subject. I know that many of them would like to do much more when it comes to animal welfare, but they find themselves tied down in a number of areas.

I hope that the Minister will consider a couple of issues that concern the industry. I said earlier that the egg industry has been a good example of progress—to such an extent that 85 per cent. of eggs currently meet welfare standards. However, that has resulted in more demand being placed on British egg producers to produce eggs to that standard. However, I understand that there is a very practical difficulty, in that many find it difficult to get planning permission to expand, and to build on
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the extra land needed to produce eggs of that quality. The demand is there, as is the opportunity to make money, but planning in rural areas is becoming difficult. Will the Minister say something about that? It would certainly help British farmers to gain from this expanded industry.

I also wanted to make a point about the quality of British farming. One of the concerns of our farmers is that, as this country moves ahead in its welfare standards, that will leave the door open to poor quality, cheaper imports. If we, as politicians, along with the media and consumers are pushing for our farmers to improve welfare standards, we really have a responsibility not to let them suffer financially because of poorer quality imports.

That is one of the concerns that will be raised today when the pig farmers come to lobby Parliament. Stewart Houston, the British Pig Executive chairman, summed it up by saying:

If that is the case, it must be very galling indeed for British farmers who are meeting those standards to discover that our supermarkets are full of products that do not meet them, which is putting our farmers out of business.

Mr. Roger Williams: My hon. Friend makes a very important point about pork and pig meat imports into this country. Another important statistic to put alongside that one about imports is that pig production in this country has been reduced by about 30 or 40 per cent. That has increased the demand for the amount of pigmeat coming into this country that is produced in less than satisfactory conditions.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend represents a very large farming and rural community and he is obviously right. He will know, of course, that, at the moment, many pig farmers are losing up to £20 per pig, and that is not the type of job or industry that anybody would wish to be in. There are very few people who would produce a product where they lost that amount of money per item.

I will move towards a conclusion by looking at some of the legislative issues and some of the ways in which, as politicians, we may be able to address these problems. Legislation that deals with animal welfare is quite varied. The key piece of legislation revolves around the assured chicken production standards. These standards require that chickens have ready access to water, are nutritionally sound, have sufficient space and a hygienic environment, and have the freedom to express normal behaviour. However, if those standards are in place now, it is quite clear, given the studies that have taken place and some of the problems that exist, that they are not necessarily adequate. Many animals are falling foul of those standards.

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